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Full text of "On the Free Indian Tribes of Central America"

207 



XVII. — On the Free Indian Tribe* of Central America. I>y 
Frederick Boyle, F.R.G.S. 

{Read June Wth, 1867.] 

There are few persons in Europe, excepting such as have made 
Central America a special study, who have any definite know- 
ledge of the present condition of its Indian races. Some, I find, 
have a curiously vague idea that the Spaniards utterly destroyed 
the native population ; others, that intermarriage, debauchery, 
and other plagues, which, as we are mysteriously told, in- 
variably afflict a lower grade of human beings when confronted 
with the higher, have long since exterminated the pure Indian 
stock ; others again, of superior information, believe that the 
aboriginal races were all reduced by their invaders, and remain 
as a docile working class unto this day. The latter impression 
is certainly true of three-fourths of them, or, at least, was so 
until ceaseless contests between whites and mestisos taught the 
coloured peon his overwhelming power, and here or there 
aroused his ambition and long latent ferocity. Of these 
" Indios manzos," or tame Indians, I do not design to speak ; 
though very numerous in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, 
they are, as yet, of little account politically, and the outbursts 
of their fury have not hitherto been followed by any definite 
assumption of power. Even Rafael Carrera, though for twenty 
years President and Dictator of Guatemala, governed by the 
hands of whites or mestisos ; nor did the Indian "peons," who 
had raised their kinsman to power, ever attempt to claim 
authority in the republic. 

But in the nominal territory of the five states are many dis- 
tricts of various extent which have now no regard whatever for 
the white authority. Of some of these the inhabitants seem 
never to have been brought into contact with the Spanish 
power, and are to this day ignorant or careless of the white 
man's presence ; such are the Menches in Guatemala, a few 
tribes of Northern Mosquito, and the Pranzos or Guatusos of 
Costa Rica. Other races there are, probably more numerous, 
which resumed their independence after a pei'iod of subjection 
more or less prolonged. Among these may be noted the famous 
Indians of Darien and of Santa Catarina, visited by Soherzer 
and Von Tcmpsky. Beginning at Panama and travelling north- 
Ward, I will very briefly enumerate the various tribes now ab- 
solutely or practically independent. 



208 F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 

First in order come the Indians of the isthmus, Darien, San 
Bias, and Mandinga, upon whom Dr. Cullen read an interesting 
paper last month to this Society. That gentleman asserts that 
the invaders never overcame these tribes, and, although this 
fact seems doubtful to me, it is certain that at this day they re- 
gard Spaniards with the bitterest hatred. To English and 
Americans they are not quite so hostile, but everyone must 
remember the disastrous explorations of Com. Prevost, R.N., 
and Lieutenant Strain of the United States Navy, in this 
territory. 

Northward of these, in the tract disputed by New Granada 
and Costa Rica, — every boundary of Central America is a casus 
belli ever present, — lie the Talamancas, who extend as far as 
the bay of Matina. These Indians are said to be numerous, and 
the people of Costa Rica declare them to be allied in race with 
the Guatusos ; but they are not nearly so ferocious. As I was 
told in San Jose, it is no unusual event for an adventurous 
young trader to lead a mule or two into their country, where, 
if he be not murdered, he will make an enormous profit. The 
Talamancas live as agriculturists, and are in no way dangerous 
if not distui-bed. 

Northward of these again are the far-famed Guatusos or 
Pranzos, who inhabit a territory lying between the Merivales 
mountains on the west, the lake of Nicaragua and the San Juan 
river on the north, the Atlantic shore on the east, and the table 
land of San Jose upon the south. Of this tribe I shall speak 
more at length. 

Across the San Juan river, in the republic of Nicaragua, and 
the reservation of Mosquito, are very numerous tribes, Woolwas, 
Moscas, Ramas, Poyas, Towkas, Xicaques, and Caribs. The 
population of these tribes is quite unknown, estimates varying 
from 8,000 to 25,000. They seem all to be quite savage, 
although practising many of the virtues belonging to a more 
civilised existence, such as cleanliness, and industry, and 
chastity. It is probable that they have neither advanced nor 
fallen back in their condition since the time of the conquest, 
but, on the other hand, it must be owned that the Moscas have 
degenerated vastly in that martial spirit which so frequently 
routed the valour of the Spaniards. 

To the north-west of Nicaragua lies San Salvador, which 
alone of Central American States has no hostile population of 
Indians. "There is, nevertheless," says Mr. Squier, "a portion 
of this state where the aborigines have always maintained an 
almost complete isolation, and where they still retain their 
original manners, and, to a great extent, their ancient rites and 
ceremonies." This district is known as the Costa del Balsimo 



F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 2U'J 

or Balsam Coast. It is about fifty miles long by twenty-five 
broad, lying between La Libertad, the port of San Salvador, and 
the roadstead of Acajutla, near Sonsonate. This distinct is 
entirely occupied by Indians, retaining habits but little changed 
from what they were at the time of the conquest. It is only 
traversed by footpaths, so intricate and difficult as to baffle the 
efforts of the stranger to penetrate its recesses. The difficulty 
of intercourse is enhanced, if not by the actual hostility of the 
natives, by their dislike to any intrusion on the part of the 
whites, be they Spaniards or foreigners." These people are 
called Nahuals, and are thought, with some probability, to be 
Aztec in origin, and allied to the Niquirans of Nicaragua. 

Northward of San Salvador, and stretching from sea to sea, 
lies Guatemala, the most powerful of the five republics. Its 
nominal territory is vastly curtailed by Indian tribes partly or 
wholly ignoring the central authority. The most powerful of 
those which have never been subdued, are the Menches, in- 
habiting the north-eastern corner of the state. So spirited and 
hostile are these people, that in 1837 the then government of 
Central America found it necessary to make a league of friend- 
ship with their cacique ; in this document all pretension of 
authority over them was yielded, — which was, indeed, no great 
privation to the whites, seeing that not one had ever ventured 
into their territory. Also, certain stipulations were made pro- 
viding the free passage of missionaries "to instruct the young 
Indians in civilised knowledge," but such have been the dis- 
turbances of the republic that no effort has been made to profit 
by this permit, — which is probably fortunate for the mission- 
aries, and not quite unlucky for the Menches. 

Of another race of Indians, virtually free, and most jealous 
of strangers, Von Tempsky gives an interesting account in 
"Mitla." They live almost due north of Quesaltenango, and 
their numbers are estimated at 24,000 souls. Except in that 
they have adopted a drunken parody of Christianity, with which 
they relieve the monotony of human sacrifice, these people, said 
to be Quiche by race, preserve all the customs of their fore- 
fathers before the Spanish conquest. I may add, that those 
customs, with the exception of the sacrifices aforesaid, seem to 
be quite as civilised, much more decent, and infinitely more 
orderly, than those of the surrounding Christians. 

In the north of Vera Paz, to the west of Peten, and all along 
the Usumacinta, dwell numerous and warlike tribes, called 
generally Lacandones. They are of one stock with the Menches, 
of whom I have before spoken. It is of course quite impossible 
to estimate the power of these races, their civilisation, or cus- 
toms, but I may observe, that all Guatemalans agree in assigning 
VOL. VI. p 



210 F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 

100,000 souls to the Menclie race alone; and not a few Lave 
assured me that the Lacandones generally are more numerous 
than all the remaining population of the republic. This would 
give them something like 900,000 souls, but it is mere guess- 
work and tradition. That they are very numerous is beyond 
doubt, for until the middle of the last century they kept the 
whole northern part of Guatemala in continual terror by their 
fierce incursions. Certainly the Lacandones and their country, 
so mysterious and romantic, offer one of the most interesting 
subjects of exploration left in the world. Whether or no we 
believe in the Itzimaya, the great city of golden mystery, we 
must at least feel a thrill of excitement in reflecting that a ter- 
ritory exists in which such a romance is possible. That the 
Itzis or Lacandones were very highly civilised only one hundred 
and fifty years ago, we are assured by the report of Mazariegos, 
who captured their island city of Flores, in 1695. Valenzuela, 
who accompanied the invading forces, and took part in their 
barbarous destruction of palaces and temples, tells us that the 
Indian buildings were far handsomer and more solidly built 
than those of Guatemala. Fleeing from Peten into the wilder- 
ness, the Lacandones disappeared from view, and it may be 
they raised again in Vera Paz the stately edifices which Spanish 
vandals had destroyed. Waldeck observes, that certain of 
these Indians whom he met were dressed in the precise fashion 
of the Palenque monuments. Any gentleman who has seen a 
picture of those monuments will readily believe that they cut a 
peculiarly curious figure. 

Into Mexico proper I do not design to enter. 

In the eastern and northern parts of Honduras, the depart- 
ments of Yoro and Olancho, are several "bravo" tribes — Payas, 
Secos, Xicaques, and Oaribs ; none of these have ever been 
conquered except the latter, who, as everyone knews, were de- 
ported from St. Vincent by the English. The most noticeable 
peculiarity known of these Indians is their custom of living all 
together in one house, like the Dyaks of Borneo. Each family 
has an apartment of its own. They are peaceful, industrious, 
and remarkably cleanly. Under ordinary circumstances, they 
are friendly with the white population, but they absolutely 
decline to submit to the authority of the republic. 

Of Yucatan I have not been able to obtain any reliable in- 
formation. Stephens observes, that there may be "bravo" 
Indians in the interior, of which very little is known, but he 
does not assert that he was absolutely so informed. If this be 
so, we should expect to find them in a condition much more 
advanced than the other unconquered tribes, excepting the 
Lacandones, for the Mayas of Yucatan were, and still are, 



F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 211 

very superior in intellgence to the other Indians of Central 
America. 

Of all these independent tribes the Guatusos, or as they are 
called by the Caribs, Pranzos, should be in some respects most 
interesting to the English traveller. The broad San Juan river, 
which now, subject to protest, forms the boundary between 
Nicaragua and Costa Rica, has two large tributaries descending 
from the Merivalles mountains and the San Jose table land. 
The most easterly is the Serebpiqui, and next to it the San 
Carlos. Both these streams are rocky and dangerous, full of 
rapids, and subject to sudden floods ; little adapted, in fact, for 
traffic purposes. But there is a third river, larger than the 
eastern streams, which falls directly into the lake of Nicaragua, 
almost at the point in which the San Juan flows out of it. So 
far as has been explored, it is a slow, deep stream, much blocked 
with fallen timber, but in other respects suited for navigation. 
This is the Frio, or Cold River, and its waters are, indeed, 
sensibly cooler than those of the lake. Where this river 
rises, what its course, or the dangers of its navigation, no man 
knows ; one fact alone is assured about the Frio, — that its 
headwaters are the favourite haunt of the Guatusos. The 
growing commerce of San Jose has striven hard for an outlet 
on the Atlantic shore, and bold woodsmen have, at various 
times, cut a mule track to the Serebpiqui and San Carlos ; but 
the dangers of these streams are too great for commerce. The 
Rio Frio is the outlet provided by nature for the produce of San 
Jose coffee grounds ; but nature provides for all her children 
alike, and she has posted the Guatuso family upon this San 
Jose canal.* 

Everything connected with these fierce Indians is shrouded 
in mysteiy, but curiously enough all accounts agree in giving 
them an origin far from their present seats. The story current 
among Costa Ricans is especially interesting to us, even though 
we be ever so doubtful of its truth. When Sir Francis Drake, 
say they, retired to the Pacific shore, after the sack of Esparsa, 
a large body of his men mutinied, in mad hopes of holding that 
town against the Creole forces, and colonising it. Drake left 
them to their fate. The Spanish army assembled with all 
speed, and the mutineers were only aroused on finding them- 
selves nearly surrounded. Hastily escaping, they took a route 
through the Merivalles mountains, with an intention of cutting 

* I may mention in passing, that Nicaragua also lays claim to the Frio 
territory, and apparently with some reason ; but Costa Rica, strong in her 
coffee and her mountains, treats these rights with contempt. It is scarcely 
necessary to add that neither government seems very anxious to make close 
acquaintance with the subjects whose possession they dispute. 

p2 



212 F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 

their way to the friendly Mosquito snore. Unquestionably this 
route would lead them through the country of the modern 
Guatusos, then, we are told, called Pranzos. It is certain that 
the Buccaneers never crossed the San Juan, and equally certain 
that the Spaniards never fell in with them. Many in Costa 
Rica believe that, wearied out with hardships, they came to 
rest around the head waters of the Frio, where they destroyed 
the male population and took the women to wife. The universal 
legend of surrounding people, Indians, Caribs, Nicaraguans, 
and Costa Ricans, declares the Guatuso race to be distinguished 
by red or fair hair, and blue eyes, — whence their new name 
"Guatuso" or red rabbit. Another fact is asserted of them — 
that they speak English, — but that is said, and with some truth, 
of every "bravo" tribe round Mosquito. It is not a little 
curious, that in the various fights of invading expeditions, no 
Indian has been seen in daylight, except upon one occasion ; 
the arrow is discharged from an unseen archer, the celt strikes 
silently from behind. The single exception to this rule was in 
an expedition made by Captain Parker, of Grey town, in 1863. 
He asserts that an Indian shot by him upon the Frio on that 
occasion, showed precisely the colour and type of a Texan Com- 
manche. Mr. Froebel also gives a romantic story of a young 
German who fell into the hands of the Guatusos — he was tied 
to a tree, and the usual incidents took place, — chief's daughter 
— touching speech — marriage and escape, and so on ; but the 
hero, who is now happily established at San Francisco, says 
nothing about this white complexion. 

Such is the Costa Rican tradition, which is so strongly 
accredited there, that an European minister, forgetful of chro- 
nology, fervently prayed us to carry an Union Jack in front of 
our exploring party. Another story referring to the same event, 
describes the fugitives as tame Indians, who took advantage of 
the buccaneer disturbances to make their escape over the 
mountains. In Nicaragua various stories, more or less curious, 
are current ; some assert, that in a grand, foray the Guatusos, 
who came from Mosquito, carried off thousands of Spanish 
women, whereby the national complexion was changed. In 
reference to this theory, one must needs inquire where on earth 
the women came from ? All Nicaragua would scarcely have 
given tens for the thousands needed. Others believe the 
Guatusos to be descended from the old inhabitants of Zapatero, 
who fled from that island in a single night, scared by the prac- 
tice of Christianity as shown by missionary padres. Possibly 
there is truth in all these stories, and the population of the Rio 
Frio is made up from the bravest fragments of many surrounding 
tribes. 



F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 213 

In regard to their condition, nothing whatever is reliably 
known. Padre Zepeda, a Jesuit, declared in 1 750, that he lived 
many months among them and was kindly entertained. He 
speaks of towns, and houses, and gardens. The latter point is 
certainly curio as, if the Padre really meant to describe a garden 
as we understand the word. His report caused several mis- 
sionary expeditions to be despatched up the Frio, and over the 
mountains, but the Guatusos were found to be just as ready to 
despatch missionaries as the most zealous bishop could be. 
And so the attempts were gradually abandoned, with no 
further success than the addition of several martyrs to the 
calendar; nevertheless, some of these parties approached the 
Indian territory so as to see towns and immense fields under 
cultivation. 

Independently of romance, the exploration of the Rio Frio 
is of great importance to civilisation. The richest specimens of 
gold quartz I ever saw came from this district, and the weirdly 
fame of these Indians, who act as dragons watching treasure, 
alone deters a swarm of adventurous diggers from hastening 
thither. Lying as it does between the San Juan river, the 
Atlantic, and the coffee grounds of Costa Rica, it is evident that 
if a railroad or canal should ever be carried across Nicaragua, a 
branch line, or at least a solid road, must be constructed along 
the banks of the Frio to convey the growing commerce of San 
Jose. Sooner or later then the Guatusos must be disturbed, 
for it would be preposterous to retain the present trade route 
by Punt 'Arenas, Panama, or the Horn, if any lasting transit 
scheme were opened in Nicaragua. Such a branch line would 
revolutionise the whole trade of Costa Rica, which has now no 
communication with the Atlantic coast. 

Two serious attempts have been made in modern times to ex- 
plore this territory ; both failed from a want of caution almost 
inconceivable to one unacquainted with the Creole mind. The 
earliest, in 1849, consisted of fifty soldiers, under the guidance 
of Don Trinidad Salazar, Commandante of San Carlos. This 
party was utterly overwhelmed by unseen enemies, and three 
alone regained the mouth of the river. The second attempt 
was made from Costa Rica by land, and this likewise was routed 
with enormous loss. Beside these two large expeditions, 
Captain Parker of Greytown, accompanied by three Frenchmen, 
ascended the river in 1863. On the sixth day they fell in with 
a tall savage, who was spearing fish. Him they shot in self- 
defence, but so ferociously dauntless was his bearing when thus 
suddenly confronted by four armed monsters, — as white men 
must have seemed to him, — that Captain Parker and his party 
unanimously determined to risk no more encounters, and re 
turned precipitately. 



214 F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 

I have referred to certain specimens of gold ore in the 
possession of Colonel Don. Juan Estrada, in San Jose de Costa 
Rica. These fragments were obtained in a very romantic 
manner. At the time of the filibuster war, Colonel Cauty, an 
Englishman in the service of Costa Rica, was placed in com- 
mand of Castillo Viejo on the San Juan river. Two of his men, 
preferring to face the evils they knew not of, deserted from that 
fort, and plunged into the Frio forests. Two months afterwards 
they made their appearance in San Jose, where they were re- 
cognised, and placed in separate confinement. Such scientific 
men as Costa Rica can boast examined them again and again 
in reference to their route, seeing they must necessarily have 
traversed the Guatuso country. They told a cui'ious story of 
adventure, — how they journeyed by night through Indian roads, 
and over numerous streams, passing several large villages or 
towns, surrounded by earthen walls, over which roofs and 
standard poles were visible in the moonlight. Among other 
wonders, they asserted that all the streams of this district 
flowed over beds of gold, and in confirmation produced the 
specimens alluded to, which are certainly most singularly rich. 
Their account created great excitement, as was natural, among 
a gambling population, but no further effort was made after 
the massacre of the Costa Rican party, to which I have already 
referred. 

For it must be recollected that Costa Rica differs from the 
other republics in possessing a very large trade, and a very 
small mingling of races. The old Spanish blood in that re- 
public is not in a minority so small as to be almost invisible, 
but on the contrary, numbers two-thirds of the population. 
The people are orderly, industrious, and fairly brave, while 
pauperism is almost unknown among them. The class, there- 
fore, from which "prospecting" expeditions are recruited is 
absent here, and all the leading men in the country most 
strenuously oppose the weakly efforts made from time to time 
to explore the El Dorado of Central America. They fear, and 
with reason, that, to put other possibilities aside, if the fertile 
Atlantic plain were opened to colonisation, the peons of the 
coffee grounds would move thither in a body, and squat, each 
on his own little farm. The hostility of the coffee aristocracy 
must always therefore be expected in any attempt to explore 
those regions. 

I had hoped to be at this moment in- America on my way to 
the interesting territory I have described. It was our intention, 
could we raise volunteers enough, to force our way from San 
Jose de Costa Rica to the Rio Frio, thence to the Blewfields 
river to examine some most curious ruins lately found there, 



F. Boyle — Free Indians of Central America. 215 

and thence across the continent to Guatemala on further ex- 
ploration. Men and money, however, both failed us for an 
enterprise so serious and so costly, and the spring season for 
travel in Guanacaste is lost for this year. May we be more 
fortunate in the autumn ! But I greatly fear that the geo- 
graphy, ethnology, and antiquities of savage America will never 
be thoroughly known, until the Yankees take possession of that 
beautiful country, — an event for which all travellers should 
most devoutly pray !